The other day my son asked me, “do you have enough money to take me to a five star hotel?”. Being someone who is not a particular fan of five star hotels I was a bit jolted by the question. I decided to explore his request a little more. I asked, “So you like going to five star hotels do you?”. He nodded with a shy smile. I was curious to know why because I usually associate five star hotels with food, and when we have gone to those luxurious buffets my son has typically eaten only curd rice and salad. I followed up with another question, “So what in five star hotels do you really really like?” He immediately made a playful gesture of shivering and said, “I like the AC, it will be nice and cold”. I saw his eyes light up as he articulated exactly what he wanted and in that moment something lit up in my head as well. For me, five star hotels were about lavish buffets, for my son they were about cool air conditioning, and perhaps for someone else they might be about the artwork and decor.
It was so clear to this little 8 year old that what he really wanted was the cool air. Yet, had I not asked him the second question he might have never volunteered that information. How often does this happen in our own lives as well? How often do we yearn for, or pursue something without having clarity on what we actually want in that thing that we are seeking.
This summer has been unusually hot in bangalore and given that we don’t have an AC (Air Conditioner) at home I could fully appreciate my son’s request. I made a counter offer to him. I asked him if he would like to bring his books and origami paper and come with me to my office (where there is a powerful AC) and and spend the morning there with me. I did explicitly agree to put the AC on high cool (since I don’t usually use the AC in my office and my son had never experienced it’s potency so far). My son happily accepted the offer and it was a win-win outcome for both of us. It was far simpler, than burning fuel and energy to make a trip to a five star hotel.
My son and I would not have been able to find this alternate solution (that was actually more useful that the original proposal) if we had not explored that important question, “what do you really really like in a five star hotel”. Asking this question and answering it helped us find an easier way to fulfil the real need. Had I not asked this question I might have had to literally take him to a five star for a meal or a stay or otherwise disappoint him by saying I could not. Worse I would have carried with me a belief for the rest of my life that my son likes five star hotels (while the truth was just that he was searching for a place to stay cool when it got really hot). This one question saved me from so many reluctant trips I might have possibly made to five star hotels in the years to come (believing in my head that this was something I needed to do to treat my son to something he really likes).
We can all ask ourselves, ‘what do I really really like?’, in that job, that house, that experience or that person. Indeed we can answer this question in layers and degrees and it is up to us how deep we want to probe. In my experience however, asking this question has never hurt. It has only opened the doorway to more possible ways (and sometimes more direct ways) in which a need can be fulfilled or addressed. On the contrary not asking this question has cost me dearly in terms of time, effort, money, broken hearts and compromises made which were not really necessary.
One area in my own life where I wish I had asked this question earlier is travel. I had decided based on some of my pleasant childhood and college experiences that I loved ‘travelling’. I held this as a dictum and kept going on trip after trip – only to come back often feeling emptier than I did when I set out. After more than a decade of unsatisfying (or downright boring and frustrating travel experiences), I have finally managed to get some clarity on what I like in travel (and what I don’t). Now I know I don’t really care about the quality of airport lounges, fancy stay arrangements, or luxurious transport. I don’t care about tasting new cuisines, shopping in different markets, or attending cultural programs. I die of boredom in museums, heritage sites, and historical tours. What I really really like is walking. I like taking long walks to discover a new terrain, and becoming a part of that terrain or landscape.
I like walking in unknown streets, villages, meadows, hills, forests, beaches, whatever. Sure, it does make a difference if it is a natural place, and it makes a difference if the scenery is pretty but all said and done I get a greater high from walking on a city pavement (a clean and safe one) than sitting in car and driving through snow laden mountains. I have been taken by friends and family to extremely exotic places and I have not enjoyed it at all. Sometimes we would drive and drive and drive, stop and sit for sometime and then drive back. Or we might have a packed agenda where things need to be seen and done and there is no time for just walking around.
Another thing I really really like is playing in water. Not getting a view of the ocean, not just taking pictures of waterfalls, not going boating in lakes. I like to get wet and splash in the water. Again, it has taken me many trips (enjoyable and frustrating) to realize I’d much rather splash in a tiny muddy stream than ‘watch’ a magnificent waterfall from a viewing point.
There was a stage when I got so frustrated after going for trips that felt unfulfilling that I had even given up on travel itself for a while. I was annoyed why I could not feel happy during my trips (I was supposed to like travel right!). Now I realize, nothing was really wrong. It was just that what I really really like in travel is to walk (or splash) and others have their own preferences like food, culture or sightseeing. It took many failed experiences for me to achieve this clarity but once I did I can now design my travels more carefully. Better still I can say no to invitations that look like trips which have many other things but not enough time to just walk. This way I can save myself and others unnecessary heartburn and expenses. Most importantly, when no travel is on the cards, I can just get out and walk, and walk for long, looking at the familiar but with new eyes (as I would in a new place).
I have had a similar experience with dance parties. After some really amazing experiences (like the ramp parties at IIMA) I decided I loved dance parties. I would get an absolute high during these parties (without a drop of alcohol). After dancing for a certain time I would feel like my body had merged with the rhythm of the music and it would move of its own accord. I would dance the whole night long and not get tired. If this was not magic what was?
After leaving college I tried very hard to recreate these experiences. Unfortunately I did not ask myself, ‘what did I really really like in dance parties’. I just told myself (and everyone around me) I wanted to go to dance parties. I dragged along my friends or my husband to discotheques, and music concerts. I put up with the smoke and smell in discotheques and I bought expensive tickets for music shows. Sometimes, it was fun, but many times, there was no dance happening either because the space was not right or because most other people in my group preferred to just sit or sway and I felt awkward to be the only one to dance. I tried hosting dance parties at home, but these usually failed because nobody but me and a few kids usually wanted to dance and we would get outnumbered by those who wanted to chat. Eventually, I got to the point where I had to ask myself what do I really really like in dance parties?
The most obvious answer was dance. Yes it made a difference if people around were also dancing, if I had interesting dance partners, or if a DJ was mixing soulful beats. However, what was really fundamental to the whole experience was the dance itself. I decided to experiment by taking just the ‘dance’ out of the dance parties and try dancing by myself in my room. Just me and the music. What I discovered was that once I closed my eyes and allowed my body to respond to the rhythm of the music, I pretty much had it all. It is almost a daily ritual for me now much to my son’s amusement. Sometimes I enjoy myself by dancing in my room, even more than I ever did in a ‘real’ dance party. For me it definitely scores way ahead of going to a most exotic music show but sitting frozen in the front row.
So what do you really really like in that which you think you want? What do you really really want from those experiences you are chasing? Are there some areas in your life where you feel like you have to make too much of a compromise to try and get what you like. Perhaps a job, perhaps a relationship, perhaps a ritual, perhaps an obsession, perhaps an addiction. Pause and ask yourself, what do you really really want? There just might be another way to get it. A simpler way, an easier way, and a more fulfilling way!
Do you feel like your experiences are often hit and miss and you don’t know why the same things are sometimes enjoyable but at other times disappointing and frustrating. Pause and try asking yourself (in the context of that experience), what do I really really like? What do I really really want? The answer might surprise you. It just might even set you free.